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 Philip Cannon Obituary

"Rick Wakeman’s favourite teacher"

The composer and teacher Philip Cannon, who has died aged 87, defied avant-garde trends with vocal and instrumental music that communicated immediately with listeners.

His first acknowledged works date from his student years at the Royal College of Music. He was only 19 when he wrote his symphonic study Spring, which was played at the Proms under Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1954. Another notable piece from this period, the lively neo-classical Concertino for piano and strings (1951), was premiered by Joseph Cooper and has been performed internationally more than 1,000 times.

Drawn to the voice, in his Cinq Chansons de Femme (1952) Cannon set five old French ballads for soprano and harp or piano, recreating in contemporary vignettes the archaic, serious or light-hearted spirit of the texts. A turning point came when his passionately dissonant String Quartet of 1964 won two international awards in France. It was written at a time when the composer was becoming increasingly disillusioned with contemporary trends in composition. The score bears the superscription “a personal exorcism of the many devils that beset us today”.

A series of high-profile commissions ensued, including two for the Three Choirs Festival. The Temple (1974), for unaccompanied choir, is an intensely beautiful treatment of George Herbert’s mystic poetry. Lord of Light (1980) is a large-scale one-movement setting of the requiem mass for soloists, boys’ choir, chorus, organ and large orchestra. An unexpected cri de coeur in the prayer for rest, Dona Eis Requiem, is a highlight of this visionary piece which ends in a fantasia on the joyful tune Christe Redemptor Omnium, one of the chimes at Gloucester Cathedral, where the piece was premiered. His most prestigious commission, the Te Deum (1975), dedicated to the Queen, marked the 500th anniversary of St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

In 1945 he wrote a string quartet which so impressed Imogen Holst that she invited him to study with her at Dartington Hall in Devon. She instilled in her pupil what he later described as “a tough and steely self-awareness of my powers and limitations which proved a constant revelation”. At the age of 18 he gained a composition scholarship to the Royal College of Music (1948-51), studying there with Gordon Jacob, Ralph Vaughan Williams and, for a few lessons, Paul Hindemith. After lecturing in music at Sydney University (1957-59), he was appointed a professor of composition at the RCM (1960-95). Cannon was made a fellow of the RCM (1972) and a bard of the Cornish cultural body Gorsedh Kernow (1997).

The composer, keyboard player and songwriter Rick Wakeman wrote in the college’s magazine Upbeat: “My absolute favourite teacher was Philip Cannon. He was an incredibly eccentric teacher, and you never knew what he was going to say next, but he taught me everything I know about orchestration.”

In 2010 he donated his archive of music manuscripts to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. One of his last completed works was an a cappella setting of Herbert’s poem Faith, written in 2012 for St Martin’s Chamber Choir of Denver, Colorado. A Lyrita CD featuring off-air recordings of BBC broadcasts of Cinq Chansons de Femme, the String Quartet and Lord of Light is scheduled for release in April. Paul Conway, The Guardian


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